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December Comedy:

Studies in Senior Comedy and Other Essays












The Humor Quotient Test was conceived in literary criticism and born out of the desire to determine whether or not literary criticism and humor together could bring something measurable to the rest of human knowledge.







From the beginning, we chose to preclude thematic humor—ethnic, religious, sexual, cultural, and political—which would tend to create highly variable responses depending on the participant’s relationship to the theme.




The HQT deals with four types of Humor of the Mind.





Word Play jokes work off an unlikely yoking of words or even parts of words.








Incongruity works off the yoking  not of words but of ideas or things.








In a Gotcha joke, we laugh because some idiot got his or her due.











In Sympathetic Pain, the audience laughs sympathetically with someone suffering undeservedly.









The HQT asks participants to indicate a preference for one of two jokes.





In designing the test, we did not choose jokes all of which were  uproariously funny.



The test is scored by determining the number of times a participant prefers each type of joke. The two highest scores indicate a humor-derived personality.



Personality types generated by humor preferences are defined by the underlying values implicit in each of the four types of humor.





By combining the underlying values in pairs of preferred joke forms, we can generate six personality types.











































Chapter 5

Humor Quotient Test: Theoretical Design

by Robin and Paul Grawe


Presented at the International Society for Humor Studies Conference

Ithaca, New York 1994


Edited for internet publication


[Ed note: This paper was the first of a two-part presentation on the design and validation of the Humor Quotient Test co-authored  by Robin and Paul. As an attempt to bring empirical measurement to humanistic studies, it anticipated the growing efforts among academics to encourage careful quantitative reasoning in all disciplines.  The HQT design has further proven to be a model for numerous other tests, humor and otherwise, and it has led to several fruitful student investigations, all bringing empirical measurement to humanistic studies.]


The Humor Quotient Test, or HQT as we have dubbed it, was conceived in literary criticism and born out of the desire to determine whether or not literary criticism and humor together could bring something measurable to the rest of human knowledge.  The test uses four types of humor, types which we have called Word Play, Incongruity, Gotcha, and Sympathetic Pain.  All four of these types have a long literary history as individual joke forms and, moreover, as the structural basis for whole literary works.  Using a total of eighty-four jokes, the test pits each of the joke structures against each other seven times, asking in each case that the test participant identify the funnier joke. The number of times a participant chooses each type provides a sub-quotient within a general four-variable profile. In this profile, the two highest scores can be considered as descriptive of a humor personality of mental modus operandi.  Thus, the HQT generates six personality types based on primary and secondary humor preference.  In our joint presentation, I will be discussing the design and theoretical base for the test, while Paul will be discussing its validation and results.


We acknowledge from the start that humor can be classified, sliced, and diced in numerous legitimate ways.  In choosing four types, we are by no means suggesting that these are the only four, the best four, the worst four, or the only four which can be derived from literary criticism. I would maintain, however, that these four have considerable literary history and that together they cover a wide breadth of human mental perception and operation.



Humor Preference


From the beginning, we chose to preclude thematic humor—ethnic, religious, sexual, cultural, and political—which would tend to create highly variable responses depending on the participant’s relationship to the theme.  And in asking participants to choose the funnier of two rather than to rank jokes according to how humorous the jokes are perceived to be, we hoped to eliminate reactions based on defensiveness or a desire to appear "correct."  There are no wrong answers on the HQT.  The object of the test is not to measure participants' sense of humor or to diagnose clinical aberrations, though further research might suggest some usefulness for diagnostic purposes.  Rather its purpose is to look for humor preferences based on intellectual and operational preferences expressed through literary perception and to determine if these preferences have correlates with life-styles and choices. The question was this:  Are preferences for different types of Humor of the Mind indicative of different operationally-defined personality types?


Finding representatives of each of our four types of humor—Word Play, Incongruity, Gotcha, and Sympathetic Pain—was not as easy as it might seem.  For frequently jokes employ more than one underlying humor structure, and not infrequently part of the humor of a joke is created by an ambiguity which makes it impossible to definitively say into which category a joke falls.  However, such ambiguities are characteristic of the genre studies that have been central to our academic research, and we have routinely been engaged in finding ways around such ambiguities. And our test participants, once the test is explained, do not have difficulty seeing jokes as representing types of humor.


The four types of humor used in the HQT can be seen for analytic purposes, as either dealing mainly with words, facts, and ideas or dealing mainly with human relationships.  Those dealing with words, facts, and ideas are called Word Play jokes and Incongruity jokes.  I will be discussing Word Play first because I believe it is the type most easily recognized by a general audience.




Word Play


Word Play jokes work off an unlikely yoking of words or even parts of words.  Puns are word play jokes, and so are malapropisms.  But Word Play need not be so elemental, as exemplified by a Leigh Rubin cartoon of a paunchy middle aged man in an attic looking at a mirror where he sees his armor-encrusted paunchy self bearing a sword.  The caption reads: “There were no dragons left to slay. They were now an endangered species.  There were no fair maidens to rescue. They were now feminists. Chivalry was dead. His suit was a little tight. Arthur had come face to face with a middle ages crisis.” The long caption suggests word play, and the joke, beyond the paunch belly clearly protruding under Arthur’s armor, is actually a compound of three word plays in quick succession, the last of which mentions only “middle ages crisis,” but which we as readers quickly clash with “middle-aged crisis” a one-letter difference that makes all the difference. This joke, then, displays both the typical, stated collision of terms as in “dragons” and “endangered species,” along side the more sophisticated presentation of only one of the terms, “middle ages crisis,” with the expectation that the reader will provide the implied contrastive phrase that makes the word play collision possible.


Historically, word play humor has been called “wit” and has been highly valued by critics, particularly during the eighteenth century.  Word Play has peppered humorous drama since humans discovered that the world was a stage, and it forms the driving force of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest.




Humor which we have labeled Incongruity is related to word play in that it works off an unlikely yoking.  But in the case of Incongruity the yoking is not of words but of ideas or things, or an idea or thing to a word.  Take, for example, a Leigh Rubin cartoon of “Columbus’ first globe,” a disk held in a globe spindle with markings that look like a rough map of the Old World. This still-life joke obviously depends on the clash between the object we see, a disk in an incongruous holder, compared to a word, “globe.”  The joke does not play with the word “globe,” as a Word Play joke might but rather is rooted in the contrast of the reality of the disk and the word and concept “globe” and thus is considered an Incongruity joke.





Dramatic humor based on life’s incongruities has been the subject of much critical discussion, particularly in the twentieth century.  Incongruity forms the underlying humor structure particularly of modern dark comedy from Chekhov to Beckett.  Word Play and Incongruity can be seen as creating a spectrum of humor generated by the unlikely yoking of words, things, and ideas.




The other two types of humor in the HQT deal not with words, things, and ideas but rather with human relationships.  The Gotcha joke, probably the subject of more academic discussion than the other three, gives fools their just deserts.  We laugh because some idiot got his or her due, as in the case of Gary Larson’s overzealous and foolhardy researcher, clad in a gorilla costume with a pencil over his ear, a notebook in his hand, and a camera hung around his neck., standing next to three real gorillas.  One is holding out his hand to the odd gorilla, and the caption reads: “So, you’re a real gorilla, are you?  Well, guess you wouldn’t mind munchin’ down a few beetle grubs, would you? In fact, we wanna see you chug ‘em!” (90). Clearly the academic researcher thought he was pretty smart dressed up in the gorilla suit. And he’s about to get got.


In order to join in the laughter of a Gotcha joke, we as spectators, or what Freud would call the “authenticating audience,” must distance ourselves from the victim of humor’s scourge, from the idiot who gets just deserts.  We let the painful consequences of buffoonery fall on another, glad that we ourselves are escaping them.  The Gotcha joke is a basis of the familiar robber-robbed theme in literature.  It inspired  scourge theories of comedy, and informs the structure of numerous literary works, from the stories of Flannery O’Connor to the more frivolous Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.  Its use as a scourge on errant humanity in Restoration Comedy drew much applause from George Meredith, and it formed the nucleus of Sigmund Freud’s theory of humor.




Sympathetic Pain


Our relationship as authenticating audience to the butt of a Gotcha joke is that of judge.  Through our laughter, we condemn and inflict an appropriate punishment, or at least affirm the appropriateness of the punishment inflicted in the joke.  In our fourth type of humor, the Sympathetic Pain joke, the authenticating audience rather than distancing itself from the victim of scourge, identifies with an undeserving victim.  In this type of joke, the audience laughs sympathetically with someone suffering undeservedly.  Consider, for example, a cartoon by Sidney Harris showing a very sick-looking brontosaurus towering over adjacent palm trees and looking back over his shoulder in a most pitiful grimace.  The caption reads: “The last brontosaurus on earth unable to understand why he can’t get a date for Saturday night.” We may not fully identify with the vanishing species, but the joke asks us to smile sympathetically at the painful situation of an undeserving victim. 


In order to appreciate sympathetic pain humor, we must be willing in a sense to join the victim by admitting that the pain suffered is not justly deserved and that therefore it could be inflicted on us.


Sympathetic pain as a form of humor was critically explored more fully in a paper entitled “Sympathetic Pain:  Rounding Out Humor of the Mind” presented at the 1994 Midlands Language and Literature conference by Paul Grawe.  Historically, little critical attention has been given to this type of humor.  Nevertheless examples of it abound in modern parlance, and it informs much of modern popular comedy, particularly in Chevy Chase and John Candy films.  It is the dominant structural form in the movie Rainman.


A Choice between Two


In pitting these four types of humor—Word Play, Incongruity, Gotcha, and Sympathetic Pain—against each other, we took a number of precautions to sift out extraneous factors.  Exactly half the jokes of each type were cartoons and half were verbal only.  Each type was pitted against each of the other types an equal number of times, cartoons against cartoons, verbal jokes against verbal jokes.  As much as possible, jokes were paired against others from the same source or by the same cartoonist to wash out author preferences.  No more than six pairs were drawn from the same source.  Each type of joke was placed first on the page the same number of times to neutralize preferences for first or second impressions.  And joke types were evenly spread in the first and second halves of the test.  The original version of the HQT was test-run to our extended family and then recalibrated to eliminate a few pairs that clearly were not equally funny to a wider audience.




It should be noted that in designing the test, we did not choose jokes all of which were considered uproariously funny but rather a set of jokes which we hoped would represent a range of “funniness” by general estimation, on the theory that uproariously funny jokes might not always be the best discriminators.


Administration of the HQT normally takes about 25 minutes.  In addition to the HQT, we have asked participants to complete a questionnaire which identifies a number of personal factors such as age, gender, and political orientation, and which also places participants along a spectrum of brain laterality (ie., left- or right-brainedness.)


The test is scored simply by determining the number of times a participant prefers each type of joke.  These sums provide four sub-quotients within a four-variable profile.  For example, a participant may have a Humor Quotient of 13 Gotcha, 10 Sympathetic Pain, 12 Incongruity, and 9 Word Play.  In this profile the two highest scores can be considered descriptive of a humor-derived personality or a modus operandi.  Thus the HQT generates six personality types based on primary and secondary humor preference.



Preference Indicates a Personality Type


These six personality types generated by humor preferences are defined by the underlying values implicit in each of the four types of humor.  In defining these underlying values, I will switch the order in which I discuss the humor types because the underlying value of the Gotcha joke it the most apparent.  At the heart of the Gotcha joke is a sense of justice, or righting wrongs or fixing problems:  fools get their just deserts; those who have overstepped bounds are put in their proper place.  At the heart of the Sympathetic Pain joke is compassion, bearing of others’ burdens, and an embracing of disharmony rather than resolving it; undeserving victims are not avenged; they are, through humor, joined.  At the heart of the Incongruity joke is a sense of what is true, factual, consistent with reality:  to perceive Incongruity we must have a firm grasp of reality.  And at the heart of the Word Play joke is appreciation for what is verbally fitting, appropriate, or decorous:  to laugh at the malapropism, we need an appreciation for proper usage.





By combining the underlying values in pairs, we can generate these six personality types:



G + SP = Bridgebuilder:  someone who works with people with sympathy but also a desire to right wrongs.


G + I = Crusader:  someone who perceives problems objectively and works to rectify them.


G + W = Advocate:  someone who uses verbal flair to rectify problems.


I + W = Intellectual:  someone who likes to deal perceptively with facts, words, and ideas.


SP + I = Reconciler:  someone who recognized other people’s difficulties and empathizes with others.


SP + W = Consoler:  someone who empathized with people in difficulty and soothes the pain by knowing what to say.


Thus our hypothetical participant who received a score of 13 Gotcha, 10  Sympathetic Pain, 12 Incongruity, and 9 Word Play would be a G + I, that, is a Crusader.


Each participant is given a form which reports his or her four-number humor profile and personality type and which defines the four humor types and the humor-derived personalities.  To date over 400 participants have taken the HQT.




Works Cited



Bergson, Henri.  "Laughter."  [1900]. Fred Rothwell, tr. Comedy.  Wyle Sypher, ed.: Garden City, N.Y., Doubleday & Company, 1956.


Freud, Sigmund. Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious, edited and translated by  James Strachey.  New York:  W. W. Norton, 1960.


Frye, Northrop. The Anatomy of Criticism:  Four Essays.  Princeton, N.J.:  Princeton University Press, 1957.


Grawe, Paul. Comedy in Space, Time, and the Imagination. Chicago:  Nelson Hall, 1983.


Grawe, Paul. “Sympathetic Pain:  Rounding Out Humor of the Mind.” Presented at Midlands Conference on Language and Literature, Omaha, Nebraska, 1994.


Harris, Sydney.  Einstein Simplified. New Brunswick, NJ:  Rutgers University Press, 1989.


Langer, Suzanne K. Feeling and Form. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1953.


Larson, Gary.  The Far Side Gallery 3. Kansas City:  Anderews McMeel Publishings, 1997.


Meredith, George. “An Essay on Comedy” [1877]. Collected works first published by Chapman & Hall, 1885-1895. Comedy, Meaning and Form. Robert W. Corrigan, ed.: San Francisco:  Chandler Publishing Company, 1965.


Rubin, Leigh. Calves Can Be So Cruel:  The Best of Rubes® Cartoons. New York:  Penguin Books, 1990. 


Styan, J. L. The Dark Comedy:  The Development of Modern Comic Tragedy, 2nd. Ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Cambridge University Press, 1968.





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